THE START OF SOMETHING BIG AND YOU’RE INVITED
GEORGE TO ST FRANCIS:
THE GARDEN ROUTE BIOSPHERE RESERVE
The age-old story of man vs the environment is well known. This time though, this article is not bemoaning the presence of buildings, or people. Neither is it finger pointing at the ‘greenies’ and ‘bunny huggers’. Rather, what is proposed is a programme that not only provides a solution to this issue, but that also addresses so many of the socio-ecological problems that we face. This is a positive look at a tool proposed to address this issue: bridging the gap between environment and development.
Biosphere reserves are a fairly well known concept, having been first established through UNESCO in 1976. Since then, the numbers have steadily grown and, today, there are 651 biosphere reserves in 120 countries across the globe. Africa is home to 67 in 28 countries, with 8 biosphere reserves in South Africa and 4 of these in the Western Cape. These numbers alone should imply that something is working.
So while we may have heard about biosphere reserves, what are they in practice and what do they do for the man in the street?
The official definition from UNESCO MAB (Man and the Biosphere Reserve) is: Biosphere reserves are “areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems (registered with UNESCO) promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. They are internationally recognized, nominated by national governments and remain under sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located”.
And in South Africa, the official description is: “South African biospheres are special landscapes where socio-ecological land management is practised towards a more sustainable future for all”.
Biosphere reserves are tools to address environmental, social and economic sustainability. They definitely do not exclude people, development, towns or farmlands. Rather, they logically define an area that is deemed to be “special” (due to its ecological and cultural areas of significance) into three zones: the core zones, such as national parks, that have legal protection; the buffer
zones that adjoin or surround the core areas and where low impact activities take place, such as ecotourism, education, research, etc, and; transition zones where towns are situated and where human activities such as farming, business, etc takes place.
We all know that the Garden Route is special. The Fynbos biome, found here, is the smallest yet most diverse biodiversity hotspot in the world and has thus been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In addition to this magical floral kingdom where we live, we have Afromontane forests, marine protected areas, much cultural diversity and significant palaeo history that dates back to between 120 and 180 000 years ago …. And all of this without mention of the special species that are found within our magnificent habitats and which range from the largest land and marine mammals to small aquatic bugs that still await classification and that have barely evolved over the past 100 million years.
So, yes we know how special the Garden Route is and, yes, international recognition from UNESCO would be fantastic but ….. how does this affect YOU?
- The biosphere reserve concept can support and reinforce projects and programmes to enhance livelihoods.
- It can assist in attracting funding from different sources for social, education, tourism, cultural and environmental projects.
- Biosphere reserves are ideal places for the implementation of pilot projects, providing lessons to be applied elsewhere.
- They provide a platform for stakeholder cooperation
- They make room for development and conservation and identify sustainable opportunities for people within their environment
- They enable agriculture AND conservation rather than “either or”
- They provide a brand name to improve local economies
- They reduce the environmental footprint
- They assist authorities in addressing social, economic and environmental challenges
- They assist local authorities with planning and awareness of zonations
Tourism is one obvious area where benefits for people and the environment can result. For example, a recent study by a German university showed that tourism in biosphere reserves makes a considerable contribution towards the local economy (15 German biosphere reserves welcome 65 million visitors annually, equating to almost 3 billion Euro’s). Tour operators and tourists around the world are becoming increasingly discerning about the places they visit, the goods they purchase and the impact of their lifestyles on the
environment. The MAB objective of promoting the development of quality economics in biosphere reserves is a similar concept and both of these provide an enormous opportunity for small enterprise and eco-tourism development within biosphere reserves. Furthermore, there are various accreditation initiatives that benefit development and the environment through the resulting shared vision and cooperative practices.
The benefits to communities, governments, enterprises and the environment can be endless. But, to get there, we firstly need to submit our application to UNESCO’s MAB programme, highlighting the magnificence of our Garden Route and its inhabitants and requesting registration as a biosphere reserve.
The proposed Garden Route Biosphere Reserve will extend from George in the west to St Francis in the east. The Table Mountain Fund is supporting the application process and this includes a series of public meetings as follows:
The first round of meetings will be information sharing meetings, with the next round focusing on mapping the core, buffer and transition zones. The dates for round 2 will still be publicized.
This is a long process but the beginning of potential opportunities for so many and for our beautiful Garden Route.